The Trojans play their first Thanksgiving game since 1938 when they visit the desert to take on the Sun Devils in a key BCS bowl showdown.
The USC Trojans (8-2, 5-2 in the Pac-10, No. 11 AP and BCS, No. 12 USA Today) head to the desert this Thursday, Nov. 22 to face the conference-leading Arizona State Sun Devils (9-1, 6-1, No. 6 BCS and USA Today, No. 7 AP) at 5 p.m. (PDT) in Sun Devil Stadium and before a national ESPN cable television audience. The Thanksgiving night battle is the 24th meeting between the Trojans and Devils, with USC holding a 14-9 edge. USC has won the past seven meetings, including last season's 28-21 victory in Los Angeles. The Trojans have not played on Thanksgiving since 1938 – after playing on the holiday 19 times in the program's first 50 years (USC is 10-6-3 on Turkey Day). The Trojans are 7-5 against ASU in Tempe, but 2-4 against ranked Sun Devil squads.
On Nov. 10, the Trojans rode tailback Chauncey Washington's career best 220-yard rushing performance to a soggy 24-17 victory over California. The game, played in a consistent rainstorm, was deadlocked until USC drove 96 yards in the fourth quarter for the game-winning score. On the same day, the Sun Devils held off UCLA, 24-20, at the Rose Bowl, bouncing back from their only loss of the season – to Oregon on Nov. 3.
Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (73-14, 47-9 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to five consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Arizona State headman Dennis Erickson (157-66-1 in 19 total seasons, 9-1 in his first at ASU), who took over the Sun Devil job this season, is making his third Pac-10 coaching stop. He previously coached at Washington State and Oregon State, and he won two national championships while coaching at Miami from 1989-94. Many expected Erickson to work his turnaround magic in Tempe, where the Sun Devils rarely lack for talent. However, most did not expect to see the Devils challenging for a shot at the BCS championship game in his first season. What should fans expect from the revived Sun Devils Thursday night? Let's take a look at ASU's personnel.
Arizona State Offense
The Sun Devils have a true leader in junior quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Though he's been knocked around (ASU has allowed a conference-worst 43 sacks) and is suffering from an injured throwing hand, Carpenter has had a stellar season and is the main reason ASU is leading the conference with just two games left. Running an offense very similar to the one Erickson used in his successful stint at Oregon State (single-back, multiple wideouts), Carpenter is completing 63.4 percent of his passes, and has thrown 20 TDs with just eight interceptions. The Sun Devils lead the conference in pass efficiency (ninth nationally) and are in the conference's top three in passing yards, total offense, red-zone offense and scoring (34.2 points per game).
Arizona State's receiving unit has really grown up on the job this year and features a very balanced core of four wideouts and two tight ends that pose problems for defensive coordinators. Sophomore Chris McGaha and junior Michael Jones are the leaders outside. McGaha leads the team with 41 grabs, while 6'4" Jones averages more than 18 yards per catch and is tied with sophomore slot receiver Kyle Williams (26 catches) for the team lead with six receiving TDs. Senior Rudy Burgess is also a threat out of the slot (25 catches) and the former running back is also used on end arounds and reverses. Senior tight end Brent Miller is a solid addition to this group (17 catches), while back-up Tyrice Thompson has added 12 grabs.
A season-ending toe injury to senior tailback Ryan Torain threatened to derail the ASU rushing attack, but junior speedster Keegan Herring and sophomore Dmitri Nance haven't missed a beat. After Torain went down in the Washington game on Oct. 13, Herring and Nance have done enough damage to allow ASU to average about 135 rush yards per game. Herring is averaging almost six yards per carry, while the stockier Nance bulls his way to a 4.5 average. The duo has combined for 11 TDs on the year, but neither one is much of a factor in the passing game.
The biggest question mark on the Sun Devil offense has to be an offensive line that has suffered especially after losing starting RT Zach Krula during the Stanford game on Sept. 29. In the five games since, ASU has allowed 30 of its 43 sacks. Senior Julius Orieukwu took over for Krula, but shouldn't take all of the blame. Fellow seniors Brandon Rodd at left tackle and Mike Pollak at center, along with junior RG Paul Fanaika, have started every game in 2007. Sophomore LG Shawn Lauvao took over for senior Robert Gustavis in week five. Gustavis is now in a utility reserve role.
Arizona State Defense
Defensive coordinator Craig Bray has overseen quite a turnaround in Tempe this season. For much of the Dirk Koetter Era at ASU, the Sun Devil defense had more than its share of problems. However, in 2007, Arizona State has joined USC and Oregon State as – at least statistically – a defensive force in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils have remained generally healthy on the defensive side in 2007, and they've come together as a group to rank in the conference's top three in just about every key defensive category. While struggling in creating sacks (22, No. 9 in the conference) and in the red zone (worst in the Pac-10), the ASU defense has become opportunistic, allowing the Sun Devils to lead the Pac-10 in turnover margin at +6.
Up front, sophomore defensive end Dexter Davis has taken on a leadership role. His 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss put him well out in front as a team leader. On the other side, junior Luis Vasquez has added 3.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss himself. In the middle, a three-man rotation of junior David Smith, senior Michael Marquardt and impressive redshirt freshman Jon Hargis has helped ASU hold opponents to just 103 rushing yards per game, good for third in the Pac-10 and 16th nationally. This group plays the vast majority of the snaps, so experienced depth could be an issue.
Senior weakside linebacker Robert James is the defense's leader. With 83 tackles and four interceptions, the athletic James sets the tone for ASU's defense. On the strong side, burly sophomore Travis Goethel is second on the team with 50 tackles, while middle man Morris Wooten, a junior, has chipped in with 42 stops. Impressive sophomore Mike Nixon has spot started three times in 2007, and should see time behind Wooten and Goethel.
The Sun Devil secondary has also had a solid season, ranking ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense and second in the conference in pass yards allowed. Senior cornerback Justin Tryon has had a stellar season, with 40 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass break-ups. On the other side, touted freshman Omar Bolden took over the starting job from senior Chris Baloney in the season's fifth game and hasn't looked back. Baloney and Littrele Jones share nickel duties. Junior strong safety Troy Nolan is third on the team with 47 tackles and leads ASU with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. At free safety, big senior Josh Barrett and junior Jeremy Payton have split time, combining for 57 stops.
Arizona State Special Teams
Redshirt freshman Thomas Weber has been a godsend for Erickson and Co. The Groza Award candidate has made 19-of-20 field goals (including a perfect 6-of-6 from beyond 40 yards) and 37-of-39 PATs. He's also been good for 11 touchbacks on kickoffs, as ASU ranks fourth in the conference in kickoff coverage. He's also split time at punter with senior Jonathan Johnson. The duo is averaging just less than 40 yards per boot, but ASU allows almost 10 yards per return. Sophomore receiver Williams leads the Pac-10 in punt returns, averaging almost 12 yards per chance. Burgess is the key kickoff return man, and averages about 22 yards.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense stayed conservative in the rain in Berkeley – and who could blame them with the way Washington was gashing the Cal defense. John David Booty was left to manage the game and came through with a couple of big throws during the fourth quarter. However, with clear skies expected in Tempe on Thursday night, USC must open up its offensive playbook in order to take on a Sun Devil defense that's shown good balance against the pass and run. Consistency in the Trojans' scheme, play calling and personnel would allow USC the opportunity to take advantage of a Sun Devil defense that allowed 514 total yards to Oregon State and 451 to Washington State, neither of which would be considered an offensive juggernaut this season.
The Sun Devils have struggled early in games in 2007, being outscored 83-36 in the first quarter. It will be imperative for USC to get off to a strong start, it seems, as ASU has bounced back in the second and third quarters to trounce its opponents 238-85. What's the best way for USC to get rolling early? Through the air. With ASU rushing the passer so ineffectively throughout 2007 – and tending to blitz less than recent Sun Devil squads – Booty should have time to find his receivers and create rhythm early. If USC can get its passing attack going – and the Sun Devils style of defense should allow the Trojans to find that rhythm unless Booty struggles or the receivers come out with the drops again (hello, Patrick Turner!) the USC rushing attack should be able to find some room later.
Arizona State loves to drop its linebackers into different zone coverages in an effort to confuse quarterbacks and wideouts. Teams that have had effective tight ends and slot receivers have given the Sun Devils a hard time – I'm talking about you, Fred Davis. At the same time, an effective passing effort will keep those backers from creeping toward the line and allow USC's front five to man up on ASU's so-so defensive line. Oregon State rushed for 190, Oregon for 200 and even banged up UCLA got 119 on the ground a week ago. Yes, the Sun Devil defense is improved – but it's nowhere near unstoppable.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Is this as simple as "insert the Oregon State gameplan here"? Close, but not quite! Carpenter is a much better and more experienced quarterback than OSU's Sean Canfield. He's also more accurate. However, with his hand injury and that sieve-like offensive line struggling to protect him, you can bet Carroll and Nick Holt will try to get heat on him early and often.
Out of their single-back offense, much like Oregon State, ASU relies on a lot of draws, traps and misdirection to get their backs into space. A week ago, Cal had much success with this type of scheme against an over-aggressive USC defense on a slippery field. USC's linebackers – especially Rey Maualuga – cannot afford to run themselves out of lanes in this game. If USC keeps its assignments simple against the Sun Devil running attack, USC can have the kind of success that Oregon State, Washington State and Oregon had against the Sun Devil runners (ASU averaged 81 yards rushing in those three games, and less than 1.9 yards per carry).
If the Trojan defense slows the ASU rushing attack, that will allow it an even better chance to get after Carpenter in the Sun Devils' deeper passing game. ASU is much more like Oregon State than Cal in their passing attack. While the Bears get the ball out of the quarterback's hands as quickly as possible, the Beavers and Sun Devils run deeper patterns and allow their QBs to hold the ball longer. With USC's solid mix of man and zone coverage during the past two weeks, it's become much harder for quarterbacks to locate the open man. Expect USC to use a mix of press and zone in order to allow its front four time to get to Carpenter. If it works, this could be a big homecoming for freshman defensive end and Arizona native Everson Griffen.
After seven consecutive losses to USC, you can expect the Sun Devils and their sold-out crowd to be especially hungry come Thanksgiving dinnertime. Add the fact that ASU is closing in on its first Rose Bowl bid in 11 years – and still has an outside shot to play for the national championship – and this atmosphere should rank right up there with the early-game atmosphere in Nebraska earlier this season. The good news? USC is 22-for-22 in November under Carroll, and with Oregon's loss at Arizona a week ago, the Trojans have a sixth consecutive conference championship and possible Rose Bowl bid of their own in sight.
The win in Berkeley was USC's toughest this season. The elements, the crowd and a Cal team desperate to beat its now biggest rival were all against the Trojans, and USC came through with a stellar fourth-quarter performance. In fact, it was a performance that apparently finished Cal for good in 2007, based on the egg the Bears laid in Seattle last weekend. For fans who were in the stadium that night, the importance of this victory to the team and coaching staff was clear from the reaction of the players at game's end. After losses to Oregon and Stanford, the team's belief in itself had grown a little shallower than in past seasons. It appeared that the win in Strawberry Canyon restored some of that belief.
Did it? We'll find out Thursday night in another difficult environment against a good team. Good – but not great. If USC plays (and coaches) to its highest level – and I have a suspicion this Trojan team finally might put on that kind of performance – it is simply a better football team than ASU. If we know one thing about the Trojans from the first 10 games of the 2007 campaign, it's this: USC's defense will perform at a level that will allow the Trojan offense an opportunity to win this game. For the first time since September, the Trojan offense will go out and truly take full advantage of that opportunity. USC 28, Arizona State 17.
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org.